Remembering India’s Birdman

Salim Ali - Ornithologist.  

As a pre-teen boy who shot down birds with a toy gun, Salim Ali was intrigued one day when one of the birds he had brought down looked different from what he thought was a sparrow. He carried it in his hands, not knowing he was, in fact, holding his own destiny. He had lost his parents early on in life, and Ali and his siblings were brought up by his maternal uncle and his wife.

Luckily for him, the uncle was a member of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), and he took the curious little Ali to W.S. Millard at BNHS. A trip that would shape the course of his life. Millard not only identified the bird for him - a yellow-throated sparrow - but also took around BNHS, showing him stuffed birds, lent him a bird book and encouraged him to study birds closely. Salim Ali did just that, and how!

An ornithologist is born

After schooling and a course in Zoology, he became a guide lecturer at a museum in Bombay (now Mumbai). He later went on to work at a zoological museum in Germany, which brought him into close contact with several ornithologists. Armed with more knowledge, he returned to India in 1930. Soon, he was offered a chance to hold funded bird surveys in Hyderabad, Cochin, Travancore, Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal.

In an unusual profession for those days, he travelled to other parts of the country and Afghanistan too, systematically documenting the birds he saw. His wife was a constant presence and support throughout his early travels and surveys, till she passed away in 1939. Devastated as he was with her loss, he soldiered on immersing himself in what he knew and did best.

Notable contributions

Not only did he survey and document birds, he was vocal about the conservation of birds and their habitats too. He is said to have played a crucial role in the setting up of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan, and in stopping the destruction of the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala. He is also believed to have been persuasive with the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in reviving the fund-strapped BNHS with monetary support.

Notable books




The Book of Indian Birds: While Salim Ali has authored several books, “The Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan” (co-authored by American ornithologist Dillon Ripley) has been considered his magnum opus. The 10-volume book is the result of hard labour of as many years - from 1964 to 1974. Not without reason has this been dubbed the Bible by bird watchers. Another popular book “The Book of Indian Birds” is a field guide and has seen not less than 13 editions (several of them revised and reprinted) since it was first published in 1941.

The Fall of a Sparrow: While most of his books are “bird books” meticulously detailing birds for bird watchers, this is the book where he tells us his story. As you may have rightly guessed, the title borrows from the turning point in his life that sucked him into the beautiful world of birds. The intensity of his tireless work and unending passion that comes through in this autobiography is matched only by the sheer lightness of his sparkling wit.




Did you know?

Salim Ali spent almost his entire life devoted to the discovery and study of birds. But naming a new Indian bird species after him came nearly three decades after his death. In 2016, the Himalayan forest thrush - found commonly in the eastern part of the mountain range - was named Zoothera salimalii. The bird was discovered in 2009.


“I despise purposeless killing, and regard it as an act of vandalism, deserving the severest condemnation. But my love for birds is not of the sentimental variety. It is essentially aesthetic and scientific...”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2021 5:27:32 AM |

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